In 2012, I joined Instagram, and I was scared to tell my mom. Not because I had photos to hide — though I did risk her being disappointed in their oversaturation and how much I relied on the Valencia filter — but because I was worried about how she would react to my handle: @risa_boyce.
Growing up, I’d always wanted a nickname. I finally got one in college when my friends started calling me “Risa.” It didn’t matter to me that “Risa” was based on the joke that because I am half-Asian, I shouldn’t be able to pronounce my L’s correctly. (I don’t speak any Japanese, never mind have an accent.)
And I refused to think about the fact that when my brother and I were born, my obaachan asked my mom to give us names without L’s or R’s so she wouldn’t have to fight against unfamiliar sounds to say her grandchildren’s names.
I had heard this particular joke about my name for years — of course I had. My high school had a sizable Asian population, but outside, past the cornfields and soybeans, lived white friends who called me a “half-Jap” without knowing that the term is intertwined with the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Beyond that, I was a competitive swimmer, participating in an overwhelmingly white sport. I learned quickly that the safest way to navigate these predominantly white spaces was to minimize my Asian half. I knew instinctively that there were people who accepted me more because I wasn’t obviously Asian. That, for them, I was “white enough.”
So I stopped watching anime with my older brother. I listened to Taylor Swift. And I laughed along with the jokes that were made at my expense.
The scariest part about jokes like this is how they’re not scary — not really, not at first.
“Maybe I laughed along with them because it was easier than speaking up. Maybe I laughed because I, too, believed I was less worthy because of my Asianness.”
After the attacks in the Atlanta area on March 16, I broke the No. 1 rule of the internet and read the comments about the shooting victims. What I found was post after post full of jokes specifically at the expense of the Asian women, women whose names we didn’t even yet know.
In deciding to write this piece, I hesitated many times for many different reasons, but the one that rang in my head the loudest was that my experience wasn’t that bad. A decade later, and I still felt the instinct to minimize, meaning the jokes had worked.
They made me and the people around me feel like things weren’t that big of a deal. And when that’s the backdrop, when it’s never serious, it becomes hard to push back — because then maybe the real problem is that “you can’t take a joke.”
In 2018, I was finally able to go to Japan with my obaachan. I got to see where she used to live. I walked the path she took to get to school and met her grade school friends, visited the hotels and temples they used to run. What struck me the most about watching her there was seeing how vibrant she was.
I had always thought of her as small and quiet, but in Japan, she would approach people in the train stations and chat with our waiters, uninhibited by any language barrier, free.
(And, to get ahead of the comments because I know the jokes already, she does speak English, though she wouldn’t be worth any less if she didn’t. She watches the news and reads the paper every day, and she’s smarter and fiercer than anyone who wants to make a joke about her.)
I asked her one time what it was like when she and my ojiichan, my grandfather, moved to the U.S. shortly after the war. Specifically, I asked what racism they experienced. She said none. I stared at her for a moment, knowing full well that couldn’t be true. She continued, as my mom jumped in to translate, by saying that they expected to be treated poorly so they didn’t think anything of it when they were.
My obaachan came here at age 23 and has lived close to 70 years of her life as a guest in someone else’s home, taking her shoes off at the door and bringing a gift for the one who welcomed her. Keeping her head down. Staying quiet.
If she asked about my Instagram handle, how could I ask my mom to translate the joke?
I picture my obaachan alone in her room in my parents’ house, silently working on a puzzle (which she did long before quarantine made it cool), limiting herself and her experience in this country, self-conscious about her English because of the jokes she herself has undoubtedly heard, the ones she expected when she stepped aboard that cargo ship all those years ago.
Maybe I laughed along with them because it was easier than speaking up.
Maybe I laughed because I, too, believed I was less worthy because of my Asianness.
Or, maybe, if I really think about it, I laughed because it made the comments more tolerable, not only to the people saying them but also to me.
These were my friends. Of course they weren’t racist. They were only kidding. It wasn’t that bad.
When I read the comments, particularly those on social media, mocking the women who were murdered in Atlanta, I was instantly brought back to my first Instagram handle and the shame I still feel for taking part in that joke.
The scariest part about jokes like this is how they build and calcify, how after you hear enough of them, you start to doubt your own worth. You start to think that this is acceptable.
Maybe they were right after all.
Maybe I can’t take the joke.
Maybe I shouldn’t have to.
Years after creating my Instagram handle, I finally asked myself why I was using a name that made me too uncomfortable to share with my own mother. And one day, without fanfare, without fuss, I changed it.
At that moment, I reclaimed my name and found my voice. And I’m no longer laughing.
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